Colorado House Democrats gave an initial boost to legislation that would give about 28,000 state employees — from snowplow drivers to those who care for veterans and criminally insane — the power to bargain together for the wages and benefits.
House Bill 1153 passed out of the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on a 6-3 Tuesday and moves on to the Appropriations Committee to deliberate its cost.
The bill doesn't allow unionized state workers to strike, and it has no impact on private sector of local government unions.
"This is ultimately a question of fairness," said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Democrat from Pueblo, who introduced the bill called the Colorado Partnership for Quality Jobs and Services Act. She said employees in 36 other states have the right to form a union and collectively bargain.
The bill would, however, give Colorado workers leverage on working conditions, much like their counterparts in private market unions.
"It's not about forcing concessions, but working in partnership with the governor's office, keeping in mind that we make Colorado run," Hilary Glasgow, the executive director of the state employees union, told the committee.
Jacki Cooper Melmed, the chief legal counsel to Gov. Jared Polis, spoke in favor of the bill.
"This bill is completely consistent with his overall agenda," she said. "He's quite supportive of state employees and recognizes their essential contribution to our state."
Melmed said the proposal is in line with his budget requests, which include pay raises, as well as his support for paid family leave for state employees.
The governor's office worked with the state employees union, Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions (WINS), to forge compromises management could support, she said.
Esgar told the committee Colorado's tight labor market yields turnover, short staffing, extensive overtime and low morale, while better working conditions would help the state attract and retain talented and experienced state workers.
She pointed to high turnover rates in state prisons and youth facilities, veterans home nurses and transportation workers.
Rep. Larry Liston, a Republican from Colorado Springs, questioned the cost, projected at $6.5 million by its second year. Esgar stressed that number is preliminary, but as the chair of the Joint Budget Committee, it caught her attention, as well.
"Anything with a fiscal note this big concerns me, but we're going to dig in and get the right numbers to make sure this fiscal note is exact," she said.
Esgar said 1 in 5 positions with the state is open right now.
"If you don't think that has an impact on how the state functions, to the state's bottom line, come hang out at JBC," she said of the myriad costs associated with recruitment, training and overtime. "We'll show you the facts."
Proponents of the bill said its cost is a fraction of what the state spends on turnover and overtime, because of working conditions and staffing shortages.
The Republicans on the committee opposed the bill, which has major sponsorship from the Democratic majorities in both chambers.
Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he wasn't sure what remedy the bill was offering, if a governor ever chose to refuge a union's demand. The state already is required to pay prevailing wages.
"I'm not sure this is necessarily helping anyone other than potentially in the future giving false hope," he said.
Liston said he's concerned about the costs, but Democrats' majorities in the House and Senate will assure the bill passes.
"It's all baked in," Liston said. "It's going to pass no matter what."